Rhode Island Woman Sentenced for Massive Immigration Scam
BOSTON – A Woonsocket, R.I. woman was sentenced yesterday in U.S. District Court in Worcester in connection with a scheme that defrauded dozens of Hispanic immigrants of over $700,000.
“Sadly, undocumented immigrants frequently fall victim to immigration scams such as this one because unscrupulous criminals believe the victims will not report the crime to authorities,” said United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “Yesterday’s sentence affirms that those who prey upon the vulnerabilities of undocumented immigrants will be prosecuted. Furthermore, it sends a message to immigrant communities that the laws in this country are in place to protect everyone regardless of immigration status.”
Patria Zuniga, 53, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman to 78 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution of $713,850. In January 2016, Zuniga pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud.
From 2009 through 2012, Zuniga targeted immigrant victims presenting herself as either an immigration attorney or an employee of U.S. immigration authorities. Zuniga told her victims that she could assist them in lawfully obtaining permanent resident immigration status. The victims typically had no lawful status or temporary legal status in the United States. Zuniga’s services were offered for $8,000 to $14,000; however, after the victims made the payments, Zuniga extorted additional funds by, among other things, threatening to have them deported if they refused to pay. Victim payments were initially made in cash, but later in the scheme Zuniga accepted money via cash deposits made directly into designated bank accounts (including accounts owned by her daughters), money orders, and bank and Western Union wire transfers. In total, victims paid more $700,000 over the course of the three-year fraud scheme.
In furtherance of her scheme, Zuniga employed a variety of tools to create the appearance of legitimacy in front of the victims. For example, in order to prove that she could in fact deliver the promised immigration benefits, Zuniga showed her victims photocopies of immigration documents with their names and photographs on them, which she had forged. Zuniga also routinely arranged for victims to travel to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Offices in Boston purportedly to take receipt of the immigration documents. Upon arrival, victims waited for hours only to have Zuniga contact them and cancel the non-existent appointment.
During yesterday’s sentencing hearing, 17 of Zuniga’s victims addressed the Court directly – detailing the toll Zuniga’s fraud, extortion, and threats had on their lives. Many victims reported how, in the face of Zuniga’s threats of deportation, they handed over all the money they had and even borrowed money in order to make the payments to her. As he announced the sentence, Judge Hillman remarked that Zuniga had “deliberately and systematically preyed on vulnerable victims[,]” for whom she showed no remorse.
Zuniga’s daughters, Alba Peña and Indranis Rocheford, have also been charged in connection with the fraud. They are scheduled for trial in August 2016. United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz; Matthew Etre, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston; and Shelly Binkowski, Inspector in Charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, made the announcement. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordi de Llano of Ortiz’s Major Crimes Unit.